Child and parent predictors of picky eating from preschool to school age.


Background: Picky eating is prevalent in childhood. Because pickiness concerns parents and is associated with nutrient deficiency and psychological problems, the antecedents of pickiness need to be identified. We propose an etiological model of picky eating involving child temperament, sensory sensitivity and parent-child interaction. Methods: Two cohorts of 4-year olds (born 2003 or 2004) in Trondheim, Norway were invited to participate (97.2% attendance; 82.0% consent rate, n = 2475) and a screen-stratified subsample of 1250 children was recruited. We interviewed 997 parents about their child’s pickiness and sensory sensitivity using the Preschool Age Psychiatric Assessment (PAPA). Two years later, 795 of the parents completed the interview. The Children’s Behavior Questionnaire (CBQ) was used to assess children’s temperament. Parent- child interactions were videotaped and parental sensitivity (i.e., parental awareness and appropriate responsiveness to children’s verbal and nonverbal cues) and structuring were rated using the Emotional Availability Scales (EAS). Results: At both measurement times, 26% of the children were categorized as picky eaters. Pickiness was moderately stable from preschool to school age (OR = 5.92, CI = 3.95, 8.86), and about half of those who displayed pickiness at age 4 were also picky eaters two years later. While accounting for pickiness at age 4, sensory sensitivity at age 4 predicted pickiness at age 6 (OR = 1.25, CI = 1.08, 2.23), whereas temperamental surgency (OR = 0.88, CI = 0.64, 1.22) and negative affectivity (OR = 1.17, CI = 0.75, 1.84) did not. Parental structuring was found to reduce the risk of children’s picky eating two years later (OR = 0.90, CI = 0.82, 0.99), whereas parental sensitivity increased the odds for pickiness (OR = 1.10, CI = 1.00, 1.21). Conclusions: Although pickiness is stable from preschool to school age, children who are more sensory sensitive are at higher risk for pickiness two years later, as are children whose parents display relatively higher levels of sensitivity and lower levels of structuring. Our findings suggest that interventions targeting children’s sensory sensitivity, as well as parental sensitivity and structuring, might reduce the risk of childhood pickiness. Health care providers should support parents of picky eaters in repeatedly offering unfamiliar and rejected foods to their children without pressure and acknowledging child autonomy.